Founding of the RI Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights – 1983

April 27th, 2015

Gay Alliance champions the silent 10%

THOMAS J. MORGAN Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer. Providence Journal [Providence, R.I] 24 July 1985: 0-06.

PROVIDENCE — Discrimination and civil rights don’t mix in Diane Cook’s world, and her organization has been working for the past two years to eradicate bias against its membership and against people like them.

She is chairwoman of the Rhode Island Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, whose membership, she said, “varies according to the issue at hand.”

Like many groups, she said, there is a hard core of “10 to 20 people who do all the work, but we can obviously reach quite a few people for special things such as legislative hearings.”

It’s all quite informal, she said. “We don’t have a membership list. Nobody signs anything, we just get together to work on problems. There’s no budget. We do have a checking account, and occasionally some funds to use, but that’s all few and far between.” The money, spent largely on mailings, comes primarily from membership donations, she said.

“We tend to do these things ourselves,” she said of impromptu efforts to influence political decisions. “During the legislative session it’s very expensive,” she added.

Cook said that the group has no formal officers. “We never wanted to be that kind of an organization,” she said. Out of the same desire for informality, the organization has not sought grant money from the government nor from sources such as the United Way.

What problems do gay men and lesbians encounter in Rhode Island?

“The same that gay and lesbian people have nationally and internationally,” she replied – “prejudice abounds. But we don’t expect to do much about that. You can’t legally do anything about what goes on in peoples’ heads – there’s no way, and you really wouldn’t want to regulate peoples’ attitudes.

“This organization was designed to obtain legal sanctions for our civil rights, which we don’t have. Along the way, we hope to make more accurate peoples’ perceptions of gays and lesbians.”

Is Providence a particularly prejudiced place?

“I’m not sure that it’s especially so,” she said. “We obviously are really different from San Francisco or Boston, but I’m not sure we’re any different from other cities of the same size.

“National population figures show that 10 percent of the population is gay. In terms of adults, in Rhode Island, that’s about 70,000.”

Do gay people concentrate in particular communities?

“Gay people are not entirely identifiable, even to each other,” said Cook. “So how are you going find out who lives where?”

Are the figures accurate?

“The best way to estimate is to rely on studies done in the past,” she said. “I don’t think you will find fewer than 10 percent in Maine or more than 10 percent in some urban area. It’s an interesting question, because I can remember (state Rep.) David Dumas from East Greenwich saying in one hearing that he thinks most of us live in the city. It sort of implied to me that he was saying, ‘Whew: Most don’t live in my district.’ ”

The Alliance was formed in 1983 and made its first legislative foray in the 1984 session of the General Assembly, said Cook.

“Our first effort was when (Rep.) Linda Kushner introduced a bill to prohibit employment discrimination. It was an amendment to the Fair Employment Practices Act. It would have added the words ‘sexual orientation’ to the other categories such as race or religion. It was defeated in the House Labor Committee.

“It never got to the floor, but we had a wonderful hearing. We had good speakers, and we outnumbered the opposition two to one. When you’re as far away from having your rights as gay people are, then that is a major victory.

“We spent the next year organizing, getting people to commit themselves to come to the hearing, or call their represenatives or write to them, or speak at the hearing. And we assembled informational packages for the legislators.

“In 1985 we introduced the bill in both House and Senate. Sen. Sean Coffey introduced it in the Senate, and it passed. I mean it passed 10 to 6 in the Labor Committee. It went to the floor of the Senate, and it was defeated by only 8 to 10 votes.

“We felt pretty good. It was a controversial issue. My impression is that if legislators don’t have to take a stand on something controversial, they prefer not to. (Sen. James M.) Donelan of Warwick made the major point that the House had already defeated it in the House Labor Committee. He said it was a useless gesture for the Senate to pass it, and it made the senators more comfortable about voting to table it.

“This particular vote was ironic in view of the fact that just before they voted on it, they had voted on the apartheid bill. People were getting up and saying they had to stand up for civil rights and human rights and for our brethren in Africa. Then they turned around and voted down our employment discrimination bill.”

She said the picture for homosexual men and woman has improved over the past decade, but she fears a “backlash” is in progress.

“Look at some of the decisions that have been made: in other states, counties and cities that passed comprehensive human rights laws, the laws have been overturned. Then there’s things like Reagan coming to power and gutting the Civil Rights Commission. And things like what happened in Massachusetts recently, in our most liberal state. There was a ruling to keep foster children from being placed with gay foster parents.

“It was the governor’s decision. They didn’t form that policy on the opinions of the professionals involved. They appear to have set the policy based on the public attitude, the same old misconceptions.

“Gay parents are as good as straight people at parenting. In fact, gay men are better, more nurturing than straight men, according to studies. But they’re not looking at studies. They are not looking at the evidence. They are making decisions that are more political than professional.

“That’s what I mean by backlash. I guess it grew with the religious Right. They kept talking about ‘homosexuals’ and AIDS. The media don’t help either when they scream ‘Now AIDS is striking heterosexuals and babies.’

“Every week, it seems, I turn around and find a magazine that says homosexuals are to blame. How many steps away is it from saying, ‘It’s time to exterminate the gays’?”

Cook said that although her organization obviously prefers some political candidates over others, the members do not spent a great deal of time working for or against someone’s election. She said they concentrate instead on the candidates for the state constitutional offices.

“We try to interview all the candidates to find out where they stand,” she said. In the last election, she said, only Gen. Treas. Anthony J. Solomon, Democratic candidate for governor, refused to be interviewed. “His people just kept on saying, ‘Well, we’ll meet you at such-and-such a time,’ then they wouldn’t come. Or they said that they would call back, but never did. We didn’t find that with the other candidates.”

Cook said the interview project has proved “enormously efficient. It not only gives us an opportunity to find where they stand, but when you go in there you find they’ll issue an office policy statement – like an EEOC (a statement promising to abide by the policies of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission), which includes a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual preference.”

She said that current Gen. Treas. Roger N. Begin has not issued such a statement (she added that the organization has not spoken with him yet), “and I am still waiting on the governor. But at the time of the House hearing this year, we got letters of support from all the general officers, including the governor. I don’t think that would have happened if the Alliance hadn’t been out there since September talking to all these people.”

Cook said the Alliance does not issue political endorsements. “We do take down information and publish it in a community newsletter,” she said. The newsletter, Options, publishes all of the Alliance material, she said, helped perhaps by the fact that she’s the editor.

Some gay political action groups maintain a list of politicians who are antipathetic to gay rights. Such politicians often are called “Neanderthals.” Does the Alliance have such a list?

“I don’t know if that’s advisable,” said Cook. “We have a list, but we keep it in our heads. Yes, there’s at least a handful that we could really stand to see defeated.

“Some people think of themselves as liberals, yet they really have no concept of discrimination. They’ll tell you they have no objection to what adults do in private, but then they’ll turn around and say they don’t want you talking to their daughter. Most people don’t want to talk about it, period.

“But as far as the politicians go, you have the extreme of the guy from North Kingstown – Motherway (Sen. Robert T. Motherway). In the last session you had the extreme of his saying that if such a bill passed you could potentially have a rescue worker with gonorrhea of the throat giving you mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the implication being that we are dirty people and we’re going to spread disease.”

Most of the Alliance members are college-educated, she said. Their occupations vary – “We have a community organizer, a professor, a factory worker, a stockbroker. I am a disability examiner for the state. We have no one who is unemployed or on welfare.” She laughed, “We are all outstanding citizens, fully employed, some in the closet, some of us not.”

Another political action tactic has been a voter-registration drive. “We try to sign up people in gay bars, and it has been marginally successful. We will keep it up. It’s just a matter of setting priorities – a problem of lack of staff.

1984 – the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment

April 27th, 2015

Some notes: Frank J. Fiorenzano was later convicted of running a Ponzi-scheme that bilked several “investors” including other legislators out of thousands of dollars. Richard Licht is now a Superior Court judge. Elizabeth Morancy left the Sister of Mercy Order after the then Pope forbade Catholic clergy/religious from elected office. She has long served as the head of RI Alzheimer’s Association. The Rhode Island League for Family Liberties appears only one other time in the Providence Journal; later in 1984 Helen Nicolosi is quoted decrying sex education and teaching of perversion.

House panel hears debate on state ERA
RUSSELL GARLAND Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer. Providence Journal [Providence, R.I] 19 Jan 1984: A-X6.

PROVIDENCE — With occasional glances out the window at the gathering snow, members of the House Special Legislation Committee yesterday heard a parade of witnesses debate the need for a state equal rights amendment.

Most of the arguments pro and con were similar to those presented in past years. The major difference was concern expressed on both sides about two resolutions in the bill that are not part of the actual amendment.

One would put the General Assembly on record saying the amendment should not be construed as limiting its right to pass laws on abortions. ERA opponents and proponents said this was virtually meaningless because the public will vote only on the amendment, not the resolutions, in the referendum required to enact the ERA.

The other resolution says the amendment is not designed to restrict enrollments or interscholastic athletic programs in public or private schools. ERA backers said this provision could weaken the amendment.

Maigret in 2014

Neither resolution was included in the ERA introduced last year by Rep. Maureen E. Maigret, D-Warwick, but were added by the House, which overwhelmingly approved the measure. It died in a Senate committee. This year, Mrs. Maigret’s bill is the same as the version approved by the House.

THE COMMITTEE will vote on the ERA bill containing the resolutions within a week, said Chairman Frank J. Fiorenzano, D-Providence. He said his only concern was whether the provision guaranteeing the rights of handicapped people would confuse the intent of the amendment. The handicapped are not included in the ERA bill introduced by Sen. Richard A. Licht, D-Providence.

Yesterday Licht, expressing the opinions of many legislators who support the ERA, testified, “Put it on the ballot and let the people decide.”

“I think it’s a very simple issue,” the senator said. “I think people are trying to make it complex in a desire to confuse the public and a desire to defeat it.”

The hearing room was packed, mostly by women wearing red and white outfits sporting “Stop ERA” stickers. Fiorenzano, noting that about 25 witnesses wanted to speak, asked each to limit remarks and to refrain from repeating information presented in previous years.

There was no preponderance of speakers on either side of the issue. The AFL-CIO, the state Human Rights Commission, Common Cause and the Governor’s Advisory Council on Women were among the supporters of the bill.

Opponents included the Rhode Island State Right to Life Committee, the Rhode Island League of Family Liberties and several individuals. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence said it has “serious reservations” about the bill and urged the committee to seek an advisory opinion on its effect from the state Supreme Court.

THE RHODE ISLAND affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill, saying it “poses as an ERA (but) in fact institutionalizes inequality.” The ACLU specifically criticized the resolution concerning schools and interscholastic sports.

Gay rights organizations and several other groups urged the inclusion a provision against discrimination because of sexual preference. ERA opponents charged that the proposed ERA would allow homosexual marriages and encourage “deviant lifestyles.”

Sen. Robert T. Motherway, R-North Kingstown, called Maigret’s bill “deceitful” and criticized Rep. Elizabeth Morancy, D-Providence, a nun, for cosponsoring the measure.

“You legislators will be copping out and the courts will decide,” the senator said. “You’ll open the gateway for the courts to decide everything that takes place in society.”

Hilda C. Nicolosi of the Rhode Island League for Family Liberties, accused the legislators of “passing the buck to voters to get rid of the issue.”

The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Ann Talbot

July 11th, 2012

Mary Talbot

There once was an orphan girl who passing as a man served in the British army and navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Born in London in 1778, Mary Ann Talbot was one of sixteen illegitimate children of a British baron. Or maybe she wasn’t. But it’s a great origin story, no? At age 14 she became the mistress of a sea captain who signed her on as his “footboy” on the way to Santa Domingo under the name “John Taylor.”Now that must have set a couple tongues to wagging on the ship. Anyway Talbot, as Taylor, ended up as a drummer-boy in the first war against Revolutionary France. Her lover the captain died, she was wounded (but treated herself) but the whole fighting in wars as a male stuck. She deserted the British, an instead joined a French ship as a cabin boy. Then the British captured the ship, and she became a powder monkey for the British, carrying bags of gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship’s hold to the gun crews. Then after being wounded again, and being captured again (this time by the French) she spent 18 months in a dungeon in Dunkirk. Now mind you, she apparently was still passing all this time.

By the time she was freed in a 1796 prisoner exchange she apparently decided to take a break from the whole war scene. The war scene, yes, but not the passing as a man scene. Talbot signed on with a British merchant ship, the Ariel, captained by John Field. She must have cut an impressive figure, because she was essentially made agent on board, keeping the books, paying the men and supervising the loading and unloading of cargo. She sailed to New York and more importantly for our interests here, to Rhode Island.

In Rhode Island, Talbot as Taylor visited with captain Field’s family in Providence. On the voyage, Fields had taken the young man under his wing. In Providence for two weeks, Field included Taylor in all the family’s social life, including a visit to his own father. Field’s wife took to him fondly as well. It seems the Field family had a plan for the promising young man. Among the household was Field’s niece, a young woman who became quite attached to Taylor. The niece (who’s not named in Taylor’s own account) apparently was so bold as to propose marriage. Taylor would later say, “I made several excuses, but could not divert her attention from what she proposed. ” Mrs. Field supposedly put up a token objection on the basis of Taylor’s youth and world inexperience (one wonders if she knew about the whole 18 months in a Dunkirk dungeon). The niece would not be deterred, however. Before she’d allow Talbot to leave she insisted on a picture, a miniature for which Talbot sat in the full uniform of an American naval officer. Only with reassurances from both Field and Taylor of their speedy return could the two make it out of the state.

Field promised Taylor that after one or two more voyages together he’d retire and give over the vessel to Taylor’s captaincy. Unfortunately Taylor’s luck didn’t hold. Shortly after departing on their next voyage, Taylor and another seamen left ship in plain seaman’s (rather than officer’s) dress for a little excursion. They ran into a press-gang. The British Navy, short of sailors in large part because they’d been getting killed quite frequently in the ongoing battles with the French, had taken to basically kidnapping sailors and forcing them into service. (In another 14 years or so the practice would become the primary justification for the US’s first foreign war.) Taylor could come up with only one way out — literally. She outted herself as herself much to the surprise and initial disbelief of her captors. Capt. Field found it awfully hard to believe as well. When he heard about it, Field urged Talbot to resume being Taylor and rejoin their voyages. she never did. She lived out her life alternating between male and female dress, sometimes living as a woman, sometimes passing as a man. But she never returned to Providence, and one has to wonder, did Captain Field ever tell his niece?

To read Mary Ann Talbot’s story as she told it herself The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Ann Talbot, in the Name of John Taylor (1809)

Just Look Around

July 11th, 2012

The next time you’re searching around for evidence of the influence of LGBT people in Rhode Island, you need look no further than downtown Pawtucket.


The Deborah Cook Sayles Library, built between 1899 and 1902. The Library was the first public library in the country to allow patrons free and open access to the stacks, one of the first to be open of Sunday (often the only day blue collar workers had off work), and one of the first to allow children under the age of fourteen into the library in the first place. As such it was a model of a modern, egalitarian vision of education and information for all.

Ralph Adams Cram

Ralph Adams Cram

But it was more than than. The Sayles Library was designed by an architectural firm from Boston– Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson. The same firm would soon after design the campus of West Point, and much of Princeton University. Eventually they would even design Cathedral Church of St.

John the Divine and Rockefeller Center in New York City. The building is as one critic has described it: “a stunning building, rising splendidly above its indifferent surroundings, showing just the severe beauty one would expect of a romantic Goth who was also a Platonic idealist.” Fancy talk for a beautiful, unusual building with a Greek style, Ionic columns, and fine white granite from Maine. And it is indeed very much not Victorian.But what’s that got to do with the gay? Ralph Adams Cram, the principal architect on the project, and his primary partner, Bertram Goodhue, were prominent members of Beacon Hill’s fin-de-siecle bohemian gay subculture. Cram was the author ofThe Decadent: Being the Gospel of Inaction which described the Boston bohemian world in a “decrepit and degenerate age.”Though it was published anonymously, Cram would later boast “in some way… word got abroad that [ours] was a queer sort of place, and in certain more conservative circles this did no good to our budding reputations.”

Other Rhode Island buildings that bear Cram and Goodhue’s touch? Emmanuel Church in Newport, the turn of the century remodeling of Grace Church in Providence, and the Chapel at St. George’s School in Newport.

Emanuel Church, Newport

Douglass Shand-Tucci. Boston Bohemia, 1881-1900: Ralph Adams Cram Life and Architecture. University of Massachusetts Press (November 1996)

The first same sex marriage in Rhode Island?

July 11th, 2012

When the General Assembly and the Governor to finally do the right thing and codify marriage equality in Rhode Island, there’s likely to be some serious consideration of just who the official “first couple to be married” will be. It’s happened in every state so far. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons managed to do it twice in California. Who it will be in RI is probably anyone’s guess at this point.

But one thing’s for sure. They won’t actually be the first same sex couple to be married in Rhode Island. No, I’m not talking about commitment ceremonies. I’m talking about actual in front of a justice of the peace with an actual license.

That honor may actually go to John Murphy Goodshot and Elwin Ellis Cox. Goodshot (21) and Cox (21), a Navy Seabee were married September 1, 1956 in East Greenwich, RI. Mrs Maude Goodshot, the proud mother, served as a witness. Nine days later, Cox applied for a dependency allowance from the Navy for his “wife”, and the pair received four payments of $137.10 each.

Of course there was something of a catch in this story. See John Goodshot was transgendered, and she was dressed as a woman, and using the name Jela St. John Murphy when the couple married, not as two men, but as a man and a woman. Jela had been living as a woman for two years at the time of the wedding.

The couple might have lived a long married life together with no one (least of all the Navy) the wiser, but Cox deserted the Navy four months after the marriage. He and Jela (as well as Jela’s mother) moved to Colorado and the Navy began a search and investigation which revealed the circumstances of the marriage.

Two years later the pair were arrested. Goodshot in August in Denver, Colorado and Cox in September in Bay City, Michigan.

Goodshot plead with the court to be allowed to undergo sex reassignment surgery (this was only 5 years after Christine Jorgenson’s surgery, by the way). Instead, as a condition of probation, the judge ordered that Goodshot undergo court ordered psychiatric treatment at government expense to “help him regain his masculine qualities.”

No one seems to know what happened to Jela St. John Murphy Cox or Elwin Cox. The case made the national press – including the nascent gay press – in venues as varied as Sarasota, FL, Nova Scotia, and even Jet Magazine. Jela’s picture accompanied some of the stories. The news articles at least, if not the readers, were surprisingly non-judgemental in their reporting, particularly taking matter of factly Jela’s request for reassignment surgery. But you can’t but think the entire experience with the legal system has to have been traumatic.

When the day comes for that first same sex marriage in Rhode Island, raise an extra glass for Jela and Elwin, where ever they might be.

Addendum: In December 1958, Elwin Cox was sentenced to two years in jail (suspended) and four years probation for “cheating the government in a marriage fraud” and ordered to repay Uncle Sam the $548. US District Court Judge John Picard asked “if he had broken the marriage off.” When Cox replied that yes, they had, Picard suggested that they might need to file for divorce, and suggested that Cox consult a lawyer.

Image how different Rhode Island law might now be if that divorce case had actually happened.

Reading for your life?

July 11th, 2012

With the publication of two big US LGBT celebrity autobiographies in the last couple weeks – Portia De Rossi Degeneres’ Unbearable Lightness and Ricky Martins’ Me, and more academic but no less provocative works like R. Tripp Evans’ Grant Wood, A Life – it seems like gay content is everywhere in the local public library.

That wasn’t always the case. Pretty much anyone over the age of forty can attest to combing the shelves of the library searching in vain for anything that spoke to their lives as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered person. There were no explanations, no validations, no visions of how the world might be elsewhere, or in a different time, or in a possible future. Even university libraries were apparently bare of LGBT content – except there perhaps you might run across a medical volume pathologizing same sex attraction, denying same sex love, never even broaching the possibility of a public proud life.

But things have changed – maybe not completely but they have changed. And in large measure you can thank a Rhode Islander for that. Israel David Fishman was born on February 1938 in Westerly, Rhode Island. At the American Library Association meeting in Detroit in 1970, Fishman conceived the idea of a gay liberation group within the library profession, and he a few others organized the Task Force on Gay Liberation, a section of the Social Responsibilities Round Table.

David Israel Fishman and Barbara Gittings

Soon Barbara Gittings (not a librarian or a Rhode Islander, though an honorary both) joined Fishman taking a leadership role in helping to expand the Taskforce’s activities and influence. The Taskforce of the ALA became a model for the activities of other nascent LGBT factions within professional organizations – groups that would go on to change the face of psychology, medicine, history, anthropology, the law and every other field of study.

Fishman joked in later years that when he first conceived of the Taskforce in many ways it was a effort to meet other gay men in the profession. But of little acorns great oaks are born. How many of our most fruitful, world changing institutions have begun from the simple desire to meet more of our own kind?

Coming Out in Providence, before coming out was cool

July 11th, 2012

If you made it to the RI Pride Spotlight Awards last month, you might have met some of the living heros in our midst, the founders of RI Pride, marchers in the first RI LGBT Pride Parade in 1976. Working in the state archives the last few weeks has turned up all sorts of tidbits about the earliest political organizing in this state around LGBT issues. There will be lots more about that in the relatively near future. But one name that did not need to be rediscovered stands out. Hubert Kennedy. Have you heard of him? You should have.

Hubert Kennedy was a mathematics professor at the very Catholic Providence College when in the fall of 1975 he decided it was time to come out of the closet. He tried the slow method, speaking to colleagues individually, but when you first start walking sometimes you

Hubert Kennedy

get up a good head of steam and just can’t stop. Kennedy wore a Gay Power pin to the PC ROTC Christmas party — picture it… ROTC, as in Reserve Office Training, ie Army…. PC as in Dominican Order of the Catholic Church, the fellas that invented the Spanish Inquisition…. and Christmas… you know birth of Christ… Yup. People noticed. So what did he do to follow up? Why an interview with the student newspaper The Cowl (yes, like Batman)

The story gets pretty interesting, and I highly recommend Kennedy’s own account written in 1976 called “Coming Out in Providence.” Kennedy’s story is available in PDF form. An extensive bibliography of Kennedy’s other works, including gay history, book reviews, and mathematical curiosity can be found here.

Scabola Feces

July 11th, 2012

If you’ve read any academic articles about drag queens, you’ve probably come across the name. It’s kind of hard to forget. One of the most famous (or is it infamous) drag queens from Rhode Island, Scabola Feces was one of the world-renowned “801 Girls” of Key West, Florida. Scabola passed from this world in September, 2010, quietly (for a change) and with dignity (as befits a true queen) looking out at the ocean. She lives on in the history of the LGBT community:

“Scabola Feces, from Providence, Rhode Island, has no intention of looking beautiful, as her name suggests. She is HIV-positive, very thin, has large expressive eyes, a raspy smoker’s voice, and a big evil-sounding laugh. Scabby’s numbers are clever and outrageous critiques of conventional gender and sexual norms: she performs, for example, Karen Carpenter as a vomiting bulimic, a scorned women wearing a ripped-up bridal gown in “Wedding Bell Blues,” and Monica Lewinsky clutching a photo of Bill Clinton.” From: Verta Taylor & Leila Rupp, “Chicks with Dicks, Men in Dresses: What It Means to Be a Drag Queen” available in pdf here

“Scabola Feces (or Scabby) is known for doing “scary drag.” As the name might suggest, Scabby’s performances are intended to shock the audience. Her appearance is typically outlandish and extravagant, including garish eye makeup that extends into her hairline. She also often incorporates into her costumes items that are not intended to be worn, such as a wig made out of Slinky toys. From: Elizabeth Kaminski, Listening to Drag: Music, Performance and the Construction of Oppositional Culture
From: Taylor, Rupp, Gamson, “Performing Protest: Drag Shows as Tactical Repertoire of the Gay and Lesbian Movement” in Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change.

Two women – two voices

July 11th, 2012

I warn you this one’s not about Rhode Island. I hope that doesn’t upset you too much. If it does, you can just skip this. I have some great Rhode Island material cooking that will appear soon; you can just wait for that if you like.

This is about two women, two lesbians, who profoundly changed the way many Christians and Jews worship.

In the late 1960s, the “Jesus movement” began as a Christian revival stream in the hippie counter culture. Sweeping North America and Europe, the Jesus movement brought a focus on the life of early Christianity, challenging the sectarian structures of organized religion, calling for a return to simplicity and communal living. Emphasizing God’s love and work of the Holy Spirit to move humans to their most Christlike potential, the Jesus movement challenged the sterility of mainstream Protestantism.

The most lasting legacy of the Jesus movement is what has become known as contemporary Christian music. From Amy Grant to Jars of Clay, it all dates back to the Jesus movement. More importantly it all flows back to one woman and one song. The first contemporary Christian music group, Children of the Day, was founded by songwriter, Marsha Stevens. Steven’s first song, For Those Tears I Died became the band’s, and CCM’s, first anthem.

You’re probably thinking boy they don’t look like hit musicians. That may be true. But that song entered the hymnals of thousands of congregations in the US and Europe. The words have been translated into uncounted languages. It has reached around the world and back again. All those folk masses you went to? All those songs around the church camp campfires? That was the lasting influence of Marsh Stevens.

And when Marsha Stevens came out as a lesbian? Many of those congregations tore that song from their hymnals, heedless of what other venerable hymn was on the reverse side, and sent the pages enmass to her — with promises of hell fire for her sins. It was years before Stevens again began to sing. But she did and she went back out of the road, living in her bus, and bring a message of hope, love and pride to Christian LGBT people. She even sang from the main stage at the 2000 Millenium March on Washington. The Mother of Contemporary Christian Music is a lesbian.

Elsewhere in the early 1970s the same kind of spiritual yearning was stirring within the Reform Jewish community in North America. In a synagogue, a young self-taught musician realized she was bored. The rabbi was talking, the choir was singing and nobody was doing anything. There was no participation. And then something special happened.

Debbie Friedman in Gay Block’s About Love: Photographs and Films 1973-2011

A tune came to her and the words of “V’ahavta,” a prayer that commands Jews to love God, fit perfectly. When she taught the song to some high school students, they were quickly singing joyously, arm and arm, tears running down their cheeks. In the nearly forty years since, Debbie Friedman’s music has become on intregal part of the Reform Jewish tradition. Her music is sung in services, around the campfire at summer camp, on retreats, in English, Hebrew and countless other languages.

Her music has become such a part of the experience of Judaism that thousands have sung her songs without realizing that the music was not simply handed down from generations past. Her music spawned generations of young Jewish spiritual singers and brought joyous singing to congregations across the globe.

Debbie Friedman died Jan. 9, 2011. Her New York Times obituary only begins to explain her importance to the spiritual lives of so many and to the spiritual power of the Reform movement. But one small quiet line speaks volumes. “Many of her English lyrics concerned theempowerment of women and other disenfranchised groups, stemming, her associates said on Monday, from the quiet pride she took in her life as a gay woman.”

Two women. Two voices. One Spirit. One humanity.

Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.

Burlingame State Park

July 11th, 2012

During a long, snowy winter, it’s sometimes hard to remember what it’s like to get out and about in nature. But soon our thoughts will turn to spring, rebirth of nature, perhaps even romping in the woods.

One of the best places to enjoy the beauty of Rhode Island is the wonderful Burlingame State Park in Charlestown. Located on Route 1, Burlingame has it all — the beach, the woods, 700 camp sites and according to wikipedia, even a yurt.

Originally purchased in 1927 as part of an effort by the state to maintain open natural space to offset the industrial centers of the state, and to assure generations of future city dwellers the opportunity relax and enjoy the natural world, Burlingame became during the Great Depression the home and artistic palette of the 141st Company of the Civilian Conservation Corps. One of the New Deal bureaus which provided work for the displaced industrial masses, the CCC employed out of work young men in their late teens and early twenties at Burlingame to build fire places, hiking trails, camp sites, and beach improvements. Did I mention that the first efforts of the CCC workers went to building the barracks where they would live for months at a time?

Now I ask you what happens when you send young men into the woods together for long periods of time?

The next time you spend any time in Burlingame, you might want to remember those CCC boys. In fact you might want to remember one in particular. His name was José Gomes. It’s not clear if José was of continental Portuguese, Azorean or Cape Verdean descent. But he was apparently quite talented. The July 1, 1933 edition of Happy Days the newspaper of the CCC described his talent. “[G]asps of amazement” were followed by hasty necktie adjustment and hair combing when “Josie” Gomes appeared on stage to open a vaudeville show sponsored by members of CCC Company 141. ‘She’ sang ‘Old Man River’ and had many hearts fluttering with unfeigned admiration until ‘she’ disclosed ‘herself’ as Joe Gomes — he-man forest recruit, and a swell female impersonator.” The song was “the high spot of the evening’s entertainment” Happy Days gushed.

(Yes, the newspaper of the CCC actually used the female pronoun “she” in 1933.)

You might also remember some women as well. In the late 1920s Dorothy Schmitz and several of her lesbian friends often camped, swam, boated and generally enjoyed themselves at Watchaug Pond the heart of current day Burlingame.

Dorothy Schmitz and unidentified friends

Schmitz lived her life, before and after a short-lived heterosexual marriage, in committed romantic relationships with other women.

Everywhere, we have always been everywhere.

See also:

Wesley Chenault, Stacy Braukman, Atlanta History Center, Gay and Lesbian Atlanta. Arcadia Publishing, 2008.

Colin R. Johnson, “Camp Life: The Queer History of “Manhood” in the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933–1937″ American Studies, Volume 48, Number 2, Summer 2007